The 'decline' of collective intelligence among Ethiopian political elites: A historical perspective - GIRMA BERHANU (Professor)

The ‘decline’ of collective intelligence among Ethiopian political elites: A historical perspective



Heaven and earth are such an immense realm that it can only be grasped by the collective intelligence of all intelligent beings.The Faust-Legend and Goethe’s ‘Faust’ H. B. Cotterill


In this paper, I will attempt to analyze some aspects of problematical down-ward trend of collective intelligence among Ethiopia’s political leaders and elites. The analysis covers the historical period beginning from the reign of Menelik II (the Emperor of Ethiopia during 1889–1913), up to the premiership of Dr Abiy Mohammed (ruler of Ethiopia since 2018). In other words, the study will cover the era of Emperor Menelik II, Emperor Haile Selassie’s era (1930 to 1974), the Military regime (Derg) of Socialist Ethiopia (1974–91), the EPRDF (TPLF) regime (1991-2018), and the current Biltsigina (ብልጽግና) regime (2018-2021). 

Essentially, the study is an ongoing project that involves analysis of details of policy measures, diplomatic knowledge, political science, accountability, and governance et cetera. While virtually all details of governmental decision-making, political accountability, bureaucratic accountability, citizen accountability, legal accountability, professional accountability are of significant interest in this analysis, I do not intend to exhaustively cover them all here. For now, I present my preliminary findings and reflections. I also try to offer conceptual clarity on those core terms I am using. 

In all those parameters I have outlined above, I have observed a decline on Collective Intelligence among Ethiopia’s political elites. My point of departure is that when identifying people that will drive long-term success and significance in particular in leading a nation like Ethiopia, the prerequisite elements to focus upon are: strong mind (high IQ); strong ability to influence people on an emotional level (high EQ); and strong positive character (high CQ).

I do not want to delve into the psychometric elements of the IQ tradition. However, one common thread that I observed during some 30 plus years of careful personality-analysis among leading individuals and groups in ethnic-based activism, and of politicians of narrow nationalism, is that they seem neither to learn from historical experience nor from current ones. Not only do they not anticipate the consequences of their actions, but they also do not understand the complexities that entail nation-state building and the consequences of fomenting discord and animosity among peacefully existing ethnic groups. 

Why might less intelligent people be drawn to divisive and conservative ideologies? Because such ideologies feature “structure and order” that make it easier to comprehend a complicated world. Are the ethnicists, narrow nationalists and racists dumb? Current research suggests the answer to both questions may be a qualified yes

The terms ‘intelligent’ and ‘intelligent behavior’ are difficult to match in the Amharic vocabulary. In Amharic, it simplifies matters to ask what intelligent behaviors are (አስተዋይ ባሕርይ), rather than what intelligence (ብልህነት) is or who is intelligent, as there is no single term in Amharic representing the generic term ‘intelligence’. What is recognized in the Western world as an entity of intelligence is construed in the Amharic language as distinct. For instance, abstraction, speed, independent problem solving skills, memory skills, reasoning and mental agility may be co-opted into the ‘generic’ term intelligence in English. Indeed, in many non-western languages and cultures, especially Amharic, these terms defy being jammed into one term. It is not only that these terms are distinct in their own ways, but they can also conflict with each other. My empirical data generated in Israel among Ethiopian Jews show that most families have difficulties to construe independent problem solving skills as ‘intelligent behavior’. What appears to be intelligent behavior or a ‘clever approach’ (Bilhategna/ብልሀተኛ) for them is co-operative problem-solving. Employing a companion’s support and consulting others are regarded as a wise man’s repertoire. This, I have confirmed in my observation data too. Children often do homework together, and parents usually use the term “Andlay Atinu/አንድላይ አጥኑ” (read together) to encourage their children to work or study together, despite differences in grades and task variations. 

I partly share Gottfredson’s (1998) conception of intelligence. Intelligence is a very general mental capacity which, among other things, involves the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly and learn from experience. It is not merely book-learning, a narrow academic skill, or test-taking smarts. Rather, it reflects a broader and deeper capability for comprehending our surroundings-― and hence catching on, making sense of things, or figuring out what to do (p.13). At a collective level, it refers to being capable of collaborative and imaginative thinking; it entails social dimension regarding ability of groups [in this case the political elites of Ethiopia] to achieve unity of purpose, action and thought. Teams with high levels of collective intelligence (CQ) achieve a state of interdependence and flow when they are working together.

Ethiopia is currently and increasingly experiencing a cocktail of Arrogance, Ignorance, and Incompetence among its so-called political elites. I am talking about recycling of mediocre, incompetent, uninspiring, and, quite possibly, criminal officials in government or civil service, with ethnically based interests. The years of leadership incompetence, weak, ineffective, totalitarian and corrupt government as seen during the past 30 plus years, must give way to strong, effective, corruption-free and solution-driven government with a focus on collective identity rather than exaggerated ‘identity politics’ particularly when such identity is based along linguistic politics. The strength of every society depends largely on its leadership. 

In order to help me capture the episode, I used the reflective writing method. Reflective writing is used in an academic setting to examine responses to a new experience or piece of writing. Reflective writing can also be analytical when applied to critical thinking or processing used in research. Reflection is “a turning back onto a self” where the inquirer is at once both observed and an active observer (Steier, 1995, p. 163), in this case the phenomenon Collective Intelligence along a time dimension. Socrates (Plato, Apology of Socrates, 38a) affirms that a life devoid of reflective thinking is not a full human life, and, on this basis, he conceives education as a process aimed at cultivating the habit of reflection in order to be capable of an in-depth interrogation into the webs of thoughts wherein life is immersed.

Collective Intelligence during four major political periods in Ethiopia

Collective intelligence is a shared or group intelligence that emerges from the collaboration and competition of many individuals. One may inquire, how can this collective intelligence be measured? Does ‘group learning’ translate to ‘group intelligence’? Can we use existing psychometric tests (e.g. IQ tests) to measure and predict cognitive differences in groups of leaders or rulers? What makes one group of rulers or political elites more intelligent than another? Do groups made up of highly intelligent members demonstrate higher ‘collective intelligence’ and outperform groups made up of low or moderate intelligence members? Was Emperor Menelik’s leadership circle more intelligent than the groups of rulers rallying behind the current leaders of Ethiopia? What reliable methods or tools are available to reach that daring conclusion?

I abstain to delve into disputes. I am loosely interested in the concept of collective intelligence as opposed to collective stupidity in certain group-motivated actions or inaction. Evidence for a Collective Intelligence Factor in the Performance of Human Groups is being accumulated. I still need to systematically examine how it works and how it is measured for groups of people in particular, in relation to leadership qualities. I personally believe in a collective consciousness that is available to us all and can be accessed no matter what our level of “intelligence”.  

Our collective intelligence can be limited to our family, tribe, and social group, or can be expanded to include a greater wisdom that we are all connected. That some groups lack in this wisdom is, I believe, collective stupidity. In Ethiopian culture the behaviors of circles of the leadership depends upon the intelligence of the leader himself. Being ruled by Kings and Queens believed to be appointed by God Himself (ሥዩመ እግዚአብሔር) for millennia; the autocratic kind of leadership could only be dependent on the benevolence of the personality in charge. Intelligent leaders are surrounded by intelligent people, while stupid leaders are normally circled by stupid team, for self-enrichment, devoid of patriotism.” My observation is that the massacres or pogroms committed against civilians in some regions of Ethiopia, based on the victims’ ethnicity and religion, is a manifestation of collective absurdity. It seems that our collective stupidity prevalent within the leadership circle is driving us to the brink of catastrophe in Ethiopia. This has mainly to do with the political elite’s ignorance, incompetence and malevolence behavior. When there is a lack of solid collective intelligence or strong mind (high IQ), strong ability to influence people on an emotional level (high EQ), and strong positive character (high CQ) at a leadership-level, the strata opens room for: 1. Egoism;  2. Machiavellianism;  3. Moral disengagement;  4. Narcissism;  5. Psychological entitlement;  6. Psychopathy; 7. Sadism;  8. Self-interest;  and 9. Spitefulness. Ethiopia has witnessed plenty of the kind of those middle-level and upper-level political rulers over the past 40 plus years. It is a justified conclusion that the leaders or their ardent supporters appear to have some of these traits of malevolence or The Dark factor. 

My analysis shows that ignorance, sinister motives, low moral intelligence, self-aggrandizement (inferiority complex) and conscientious stupidity are the common denominators to or attributes of all those groups of rulers who ruled Ethiopia during most of the last 40 plus years. My conclusion is based on the dimensions of Governmental decision-making, Political Accountability, Bureaucratic Accountability, Citizen Accountability, Legal Accountability, and Professional Accountability. Although Ethiopia was a traditional society, Emperor Menelik’s leadership circle outperforms by far the succeeding regimes in those measures. Both the social and physical infrastructures were undeveloped, though. 

The collective intelligence among the political elites of Emperor Haile Selassie was diversified, solid and expansive. Modern education was expanded. However, modern education failed to align itself to the needs of the country. It was designed for another society. The development of a society needs to pass through certain economic, social and political stages: say from feudalism to capitalism and then may be to socialism or communism. Ethiopian education tried to bypass these stages and attempted to introduce socialism from feudalism bypassing capitalism. It went straight to equal distribution of wealth without creating the wealth itself. The outcome of transformation of kingdom era to Dergue era was a disaster. Besides, modern education brought with it ideas that are anomalous to the nation Ethiopia or anathema, or things accursed to damnation or destruction, such as questioning the very foundation of Ethiopia, non-religious ideas based notions such as communism, socialism, Marxism Leninism etc. In spite of the tension in the political strata, there was some level of accountability in all those dimensions mentioned above. Some policy measures were taken but they lacked rigor. However, regarding diplomatic knowledge, Haile Selassie’s era was unparalleled. The era of Emperor Haile Selassie contributed significantly to the decolonization of Africa. The formation of OAU and ECA was one outcome of His Majesty’s diligent leadership. 

In the Kings/Queens days, many students learned classical Christian education via Geez or traditional religious institutions. As the slogan was “Faiths are personal and country is communal – ሀይማኖት የግል፣ አገር የጋራ” Islamic institutions performed their share in their own ways. Many researchers believe that the “Orthodoxy” approach in education may ‘ground’ students in the sense that “classical learning teaches “rightly ordered thinking,” so that there is a connection with the “rightly ordered mind” that is essential to mental health”. There is now research that demonstrates the superiority of Classical Christian Education by almost every standard–academically, socially, spiritually, psychologically–to the alternatives. The classically-educated showed strong results in holding to orthodox Christian theology and moral convictions.  They also score the highest in being willing to take action when they see injustice. Emperors Menelik and Haile Selassie’s era were relatively high in the realms of classic learning ፈሪሀ እግዚአብሔር (God Fearing learning) and fairness, as I was told by my parents and grandparents. 

Old tradition depends on the qualities of leadership. The adage is “Look at the your angina and follow your leader” (ተመልከት አላማህን ተከተል አለቃህን). Therefore, success or failure depends on the qualities of the leadership. The Battle of Adwa, led by Emperor Menelik, was a turning point in world history. Previously, European countries had generally thought of themselves as superior to virtually all countries, including then long-established empires, elsewhere in the world. But now, at the Battle of Adwa, an African nation did successfully defend itself against a military aggressive invasion by a European country. The colonized people in Africa, Asia, and the Americas undoubtedly took emboldening note as well as encouragement of Menelik’s defeat of the European aggressor. Indeed, the days of Europe’s colonial supremacy in the world were thus numbered. 

It is significant that Menelik was not only a strategist and intelligent leader. He was also kind-hearted, God-fearing, and had a strong ability to influence people on an emotional level (high EQ):

Taking in to consideration many of the good things he accomplished to his people and country, Ethiopia, one can say that Menelik-II was a kind-hearted leader. Though there are a few individuals who do not agree with this, what history testifies is that Emperor Menelik is exceptionally among the type of individuals with compassionate nature. The Battle of Embabo is one of the incidents we can pick to show his kindness. At this battlefield Menelik and King of Gojam, Tekle-Haimanot fought furiously. Tekle-Haimanot demonstrated prowess commonly expected from an Ethiopian warrior and unfortunately he was wounded and captured. Up on his capture, he was not cuffed as per a special order given by Menelik. This was done to show respect to the captured king. Then he was taken to Menelik. Up on his arrival, Menelik got to his feet from his throne, hugged and kissed him. “My brother, it is God’s will that we have met alive,” said Menelik. Later on, Menelik announced that he was the one who should treat the wounded king, Tekle-Haimanot. He washed and wiped the sore of Tekle-Haimanot… Immediately after, Menelik commanded for the release of all captured soldiers of Tekle-Haimanot. In the meantime, while chatting, Menelik asked Tekle-Haimanot what he would have done if he was the one who had captured Menelik. Tekle-Haimanot responded bluntly that he would have cut his flesh in to pieces and given to vultures.
Menelik also showed respect to King Kawo Tona of Wolaita after the latter was captured at a big war held between the two. King Tona was believed to be one of the greatest warriors and powerful last king of Wolaita. After being wounded and captured, he was taken to Menelik who rose to his feet and hugged him saying, “my brother, you forced us to kill the people in vain”. After the bloody war, Menelik commanded that all the cattle taken by his troops should be returned to the people of Wolaita. Then he appointed Kawo Tona to govern that part of the country. Similarly, Menelik pardoned many of his prominent officials who had betrayed him and joined the enemy side. This is just to show how kind-hearted Menelik was.

It is apparent that the stupid does not appreciate the intelligent. What is most saddening is the continuous defamation of the character and reputation of Emperor Menelik, as well as belittling the Adwa victory, by Tigrean cadres and extremist Oromo nationalists. The victory of Adwa is the pride of black people. As the only African nation to successfully resist European conquest during the scramble for Africa, Ethiopia became a pre-eminent symbol of the pan-African movement and international opposition to colonialism. The battle of Adwa not only saved Ethiopia from colonization by Rome, but also raised the status of an African country to an equal partner in the world community. The victory was achieved by the combined efforts of The Oromos, the Tigreans, the Amharas and the rest of Ethiopia. Menelik united the country through love and care and enthroned patriotism in hearts and minds of his nation. It is a pride of everybody Ethiopian. Why do then the tribalists want to delete that glorious history? Is it not due to an utter lack of moral intelligence and complete disregard for the truth?! “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” ― Aldous Huxley, Complete Essays 2, 1926-29.


  • Compare Menelik’s strategy to the leadership styles and utter stupidity of TPLF’s political elite, which received its final blow last month. As Mountain (Dec. 31, 2020) stated in his recent article entitled The Final Hours of Ethiopia’s TPLF Regime: ‘With their army destroyed and their last, best troops wiped out in one morning on the outskirts of their capital Mekele the last remnants of the leadership of Ethiopia’s TPLF regime were forced to retreat to the secret Hagarasalam underground bunkers near the capital. Built by the notoriously paranoid and cowardly TPLF godfather Meles Zenawi, the Hagarasalam bunkers were the bolt hole of desperation, a place to hide through thick and thin of warfare in safety. No engineer that helped build this secret underground bunker system lived to tell the story’


As everybody knows, The Northern Command has been stationed in the Tigray region for more than two decades, to serve and protect the people of Tigray from external military threats. In the early hours of 4th November, TPLF forces carried out an unprovoked attack on a federal military base located in Mekelle city. According to the Prime Minister, that attack had been aimed at large-scale looting of military equipment and indiscriminate killings of the soldiers and officers stationed in the military camp. It was that midnight attack on that army camp that plunged Ethiopia into a deadly armed conflict which the government calls law enforcement action. The self-deluded leadership of the TPLF, although it was on the leadership echelon of Ethiopia for 27 years, was blinded by self-aggrandizing, only looking at its own strength, failed to recognize the strength of the Ethiopian Defense Force. It only took 3 weeks for the Ethiopian Defense Force to demolish the power the TPLF built for 46 years. The TPLF miscalculated, with its naive idea to defeat 112 million people with just six million, even if the entire nation was at war. This is a good example of collective stupidity the leadership of the TPLF embodied or incarnated.

In today’s world of mass communication, gruesome content has become just about as normalized in our society as any other piece of information. However, some atrocious crimes of war are so staggering that they simply defy comprehension even to a most desensitized individual. The monstrous attack on the military base and the barbaric murders committed therein actually defy comprehension. The dreadful testimony about that specific attack by Tigrean members of the military base, against their own compatriots from other ethnic groups, is virtually beyond comprehension. Imagine, soldiers were killed while still in their pyjamas! All this tells us these political elites who gave the order are not only merciless cold-blooded evil but also unintelligent creatures.

The period after the revolution (1974) belittled the importance of spiritual aspects of societal life, dismantled the old way of life in the name of “cultural revolution” and created a soulless generation. According to Rev. Michael P. Orsi (September 9, 2020), the truth is this: Wherever socialism has been tried, invariably it has turned into communism. And because communism is atheistic, the end result has always been tyranny, suffering, and death. Some 100 million people have been killed over the course of communism’s march through Russia, Eastern Europe, China, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and other parts of the world. Why such a toll in blood? Because communism recognizes no higher moral principle than raw power. Without God to limit human action, any action considered necessary to achieving ideological goals is acceptable. Human beings become nothing more than expendable pieces to be used in pursuing the utopian society which communism promises to create. I do partly agree with Orsi. The Ethiopian rulers shaped by this ideology have created havoc to that ancient country. 

The Derg claimed to be communist and tried to materialize it, albeit unsuccessfully and most imprudently; and the TPLF claimed to be communist, of Albanian variety. Although the TPLF claims to be a communist, its philosophy is diametrically opposed to the idea of Communism. Communism is about the solidarity and unity of proletariats of the world. Actually, it is a group of mafia style narrow nationalist and tribalist. The EPRDF was guided by the so called revolutionary democracy along the above lines. This platform created a fertile ground for the depletion of the nation’s intelligentsia pool (in the positive non-pejorative sense). Meritocracy, credentials and talent were secondary criteria. They established and presided over a ruthlessly backward social system, in accordance to whose organization people were chosen and moved into positions of success, power, and influence not on the basis of their demonstrated abilities and merit — criteria which became, in particular under post Derg regimes, irrelevant things of the past. The Derg was not a communist either in its real sense, although it claims to be one. It is a Military Junta. Derg and Junta both have the same meaning – a committee made up army officers.

Without morality, humankind is stripped of the restraint necessary to maintain social harmony. The traditional spiritual practice’s principles of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance were antithetical to the atheistic rule of the communist regime.  Communism and socialism in Ethiopia was able to step into the breach and provide social control by dominating even the most minute corners of our lives. Without tradition, people forget their heritage, their culture, and the ways of life that make them human. And without religion, people lose the path through which they could temper their inner character and save themselves from spiritual destruction

I argue that the grave leadership incompetence and a moral excesses of the so-called communist and socialist regimes have contributed to the current crises in Ethiopia, because people with low moral intelligence grabbed power. Beheshtifar, Esmaeli, and Moghadam (2011) claim that moral intelligence is the “ʻcentral intelligence’ for all humans.” It is considered a distinct form of intelligence, independent of both emotional and cognitive intelligence. Lennick and Kiel, authors of Moral Intelligence and the originators of the term, identified four competencies of moral intelligence: integrity, responsibility, forgiveness, and compassion. Ethno nationalists in Ethiopia lack these skills and values, and their moral scores are shockingly low. Lies and devilish thought pervades people with deficit moral intelligence. Many of our ethno nationalists are infected with this endemic. Aklog Birara (2019) dubbed them or their actions the Great Wall of Lies. Historical, political, socioeconomic and cultural ignorance among Ethiopia’s intellectuals, political and social “elites” is at its peak. It is guided by relentless misinformation, hatemongering and by identity politics that has no boundaries. Deliberate ignorance and misinformation concerning the historical and nation-building roles of the Amhara is amongst the most damming, unsettling, destabilizing and dangerous phenomenon in the world.

In a recent political campaign, an anti-ethnic Amhara speech broadcast by the Oromo Media Network (OMN) sparked anger among many Ethiopians, especially with the ethnic Amhara people.

The video that became viral in various social media platforms displayed a young lady speaking in Afan Oromo language sending messages that all ethnic Oromo people must not live with other ethnic people and engaged in any form of social contracts, especially with the Neftegnas (nickname of inhabitants of Amhara origin). “Our struggle starts with an Oromo husband who is married to Habesha (non-ethnic-Oromo) lady. An Oromo husband who is married with Habesha wife or vice versa must divorce even if they have children,” she said during a special event organized by the station itself. The young lady told the participants: “ethnic Oromo persons must not be married with non-Oromo persons. Those who already married with a man or woman belonging to other ethnic groups should come to their senses and divorce,” She went on to say, “Don’t intermingle with others and bring the dirt to the Oromo communities. The Qeerroo struggle will be on those Oromo persons who engage themselves with the Neftegna.” “Come on, get marry us (ethnic Oromo girls). Those of you who are our beautiful girls who married Nefetegna persons get a divorce today,” she added. The lady, clearly ignorant of the weight and substance of the matter she was talking about, was cheered by the participants including by prominent political figures from Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), an organization many believed stood for a genuine change in Ethiopia until a couple of years ago.

Tribalism was an urge our forefathers assumed we could overcome. And so it has become our greatest vulnerability as we see it currently in Ethiopian politics and elsewhere. Research shows that inter-ethnic marriages teach social tolerance, greater ability to treat with understanding the dating women and men of different respective national or ethnic origins and backgrounds, and accordingly contribute to the improvement of relations between countries and ethnic groups. Why do we hate? Hatred has to be learned, according to experts. “We are all born with the capacity for aggression as well as compassion. Which tendencies we embrace requires mindful choice by individuals, families, communities and our culture in general. The key to overcoming hate is education: at home, in schools, and in the community.” This wisdom appears to be disintegrated in some parts of the Oromo region among some groups (The political elites) of this otherwise proud and culturally rich ethnic group. The collective stupidity that we observe among some groups of this ethnic group, is very much a function of uncritical acceptance of slanted reporting that twists or omits relevant facts about Ethiopian history, making it impossible to arrive at intelligent conclusions. Listen to Shimelis Abdisa Leaked audio: Prosperity Party and Oromo hegemony in Ethiopiaand Taye Denda’s controversial statements from time to time, potentially inciting genocide or civil unrest. They are too many of them within the Oromo political strata. In all these the Prime Minister shows three faces Pastoral face, Political face and Actorial face. These faces puzzle the entire nation, although he is still hugely [?] popular. (I will get back to these three faces —perplexing and dangerous—in a separate work with adequate data).

Conclusion and the way forward

This all makes me think that we should develop our collective intelligence primarily among our political elites with urgency — and as soon as possible. We need ways to better reflect together, to develop positive responses to our shared circumstances, and to co-create our common future as Ethiopians. The bad news is that our adversarial, fragmentary political culture actually impedes us in these destructive efforts. The good news is that effective tools exist, which, if we use them well, could move us beyond the stupefying dynamics of our ethnic-based political culture that has been pervading Ethiopia during the past thirty years. Under normal circumstances, collective intelligence uses diversity and some conflict to generate greater understanding and mutual coexistence as opposed to violence and murder. Handled properly, diversity alerts us to new perspectives and possibilities, and ‘healthy conflict’ stimulates rapid collective learning. These are treasures to be utilized, not merely obstacles to be avoided or problems to be solved. Concerted effort is needed to combat false and distorted information. 

There is a possibility to reverse the collective stupidity engulfing the region into collective intelligence via empowering the good wills of elder, women and wise members of the group. When identifying people that will drive long-term success and significance in particular in leading a nation like Ethiopia and its multitude of nationalities, the elements needed to achieve this are collective intelligence as a sum of  a strong mind (high IQ);  a strong ability to influence people on an emotional level (high EQ) A strong positive character (high CQ). 

Ethiopia, and in particular Addis Ababa, is a cosmopolitan society where many ethnically  or racially’ and religiously diverse people have lived peacefully for many years. Along the course of history, many cities like Harar and Addis Ababa have been a melting pot and today’s Ethiopians resemble their ancestors in their immense tolerance of ethnical differences in spite of some derailed politicians and ethnic-nationalist activists’ barrages of fake narratives and treacherous and sinister motives. What gives the cohesion of the country is an esprit des corps based on a traditional culture, which in turn derives its solidity from the roots of a rich history as well as a common fate for all committed to live here. It is intelligent people and talented politicians who understand the dynamics of this fact and can save the country from succumbing to protracted civil war which can be so difficult to bring to an end.

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